Saturday, October 25, 2014

"Good words are worth much, and cost little." George Herbert

As long as I can remember, I have had certain words that I loved. Some words because of the way they tumble around in my mouth as they form, some because of the sound they make when they leave my lips, some because of their meanings, some because of the way they look when written and some because of the memories they evoke.
What makes us like some words more than others?

In 2001, psychologists Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard repeated experiments conducted in 1929 and again in 1947 concerning how people perceive words. They showed participants pictures of two forms like below:




They then asked the participants to label the shape that was called kiki and which was called bouba. Interestingly in all of the experiments conducted, 95% to 98% of the participants selected the curvy shape as bouba and the jagged one as kiki. The results show that the human brain attaches abstract meanings to the shapes and sounds in a consistent way.

The rounded shape may most commonly be named bouba because the mouth makes a more rounded shape to produce that sound while kiki is formed by making a more taut, angular shaped with the mouth.
So the reasons I like some words because of sounds are not so strange.
I asked friends, family and even my students to tell me their favorite words. Most of them responded with many that are on this list: 100 Beautiful and Ugly Words



Some people responded with words that were unfamiliar to me or are infrequently used. My husband's favorite word is bifurcated, meaning to cause to divide into two branches or parts. A very well-read friend likes grawlix, a word I had never heard of before. Grawlix is the different characters and symbols that cartoonists use in word bubbles to show curse words.




Other words people suggested are more for connotation than denotation:  peace, family, vacation, retirement, love and work. These words have special meanings to those who suggested them because they hold memories of times together, of past events or those longed-for future times. 
Many of the favorite words of friends, family and students are below:

Words, like smells and music, are catalysts for memories.
At this time, my favorite word is epiphany. I like the way it sounds, mainly the p and f with the -any at the end. It's very lyrical. I also like the way it looks when written, with the downward slopes of the p's and y and the upward stroke of the h
The meaning of epiphany is great, too. Besides the religious meaning of  the Christian festival held in honor of the three wise men coming to see the baby Jesus, it also means a moment in which a person suddenly sees or understands something in a very clear way. It's sort of like the light bulb that goes on when someone sees how a difficult math problem works or how to put together a lamp following instructions written in Chinese.  

Oprah calls an epiphany her Aha Moment, a time when she might throw out her arms and shout, "I know! I get it."


Unfortunately, I don't get to see these Aha Moments often enough from my students. They tend to have one when we discuss why a character's name or a certain title is chosen for a story. 





Most people have words that they like for one reason or another. That's what keeps language interesting and keeps us adding new words all the time (selfie, google, etc.). The next time you hear an interesting word, roll it around in your mouth and see how it sounds when it leaves your lips. It might become a favorite one.


No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world. -- Robin Williams